Peter Jensen interview for Thread magazine. Check it out at: www.threadfashionmagazine.com. Photography: www.richgilligan.com
I have been lucky enough to sell Peter Jensen’s captivating collections since I first opened Dolls on Clarendon street and I jumped at the chance to interview him for Thread magazine. I set off to London with my partner, Rich Gilligan who managed to capture both the atmosphere of Peter’s studio and the refreshingly unassuming character of the man himself. I hope you enjoy learning more about the label and the chance to have a sneak peek behind the scenes…
Based in London, though originally hailing from Logstor Denmark, Peter Jensen has slowly created an imaginative and quietly unconventional world in fashion, fueled by his independent and personal approach and inspired by his many spirited muses. Now marking his ten year anniversary with a celebratory book documenting past collections, I took the chance to spend some time with Peter in his East London studio.
Having graduated from St. Martin’s in 1999, you began to show your own menswear collection in Paris almost immediately. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced initially ?
To be honest, it was never my ambition to have my own label. After my graduate show at LFW I was approached by a group of Italian investors who had also backed Alexander Mc Queen when he graduated from St. Martins. I was very surprised to be singled out by them as I never felt a menswear show would attract much attention, always aware that the women’s wear graduates were more hungry for press and reaching a level of immediate success. A stable job working for another designer would have been much more what I was driven towards, while maybe working on small design projects on the side. Instead I managed to get caught up in a promotional whirlwind, showing my first menswear collection at Paris Fashion week just two months later. I was represented by a powerful French Pr company and urged to sign a contract with the investors. After three seasons of producing collections, I decided to break away, having avoided signing a contract that would have bound me legally and financially to the group for the next 25 years.
Menswear is now no longer your main focus. What then led you to designing your first women’s wear collection?
After the experience of showing the menswear in Paris, I felt I needed a change and decided to design a small women’s wear collection. This allowed me to have a more imaginative focus and more freedom in the creative process. With the menswear, I was more concerned about the placement of a button or the cut of a single piece. My good friend Tim Walker took a look and decided to use some pieces in a shoot for Italian Vogue. Off the back of this I managed to put together a presentation for LFW without any real budget. Suddenly I had orders from Barneys in New York and Maria Luisa in Paris.
How did you then form the working relationship with your creative and business partner, Gerard Wilson and how much input does he have in designing each collection?
I met Gerard at St. Martins where we ended up modeling in a show dressed up as ventriloquists. Unfortunately for us the designer kept winning awards and we were committed to sitting with heavily painted faces far more than we had anticipated! It was during this time that we really became friends and then felt we could also work well together. When we begin designing the collection, I draw and map out each piece in the collection and then Gerard will give his opinion, add some ideas and make some fine adjustments.
The last ten years have brought a kind of slow and steady success?. Do you see this as a positive thing?
Over the years myself and Gerard have both felt that our personalities don’t particularly lend themselves to playing the game and I do feel this has held us back at times. We have witnessed fellow graduates attracting much more immediate attention. It took us years to be accepted for the On Schedule shows by the British Fashion council and perhaps this has been due to our lack of interest in PR and networking. And yet this has enabled us to grow our business organically and make our mistakes without it ever being too public. We have also had the time to build a strong foundation for the business and gain a deeper understanding of what the company represents. I have been teaching on the MA menswear course at St.Martins for nine years now and feel that the quickening pace of the industry and the pressure put on graduates to become an instant success quite worrying. They are being advised from all sides over what to do and not to do and aren’t given any breathing space to take stock and tackle things in their own natural way.
Each collection arrives with a moniker referencing a famous/infamous woman. Women chosen have ranged from Jodie Foster to Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut. How instinctive is the process of choosing this muse, how significant is she in the design process and at what stage does the research begin?
This all really depends on who the woman is. The muse can be chosen at the start of the design process and sometimes later on. Somehow I think the ones who emerge later bring more to the collection because I am less fixed on a single idea. It’s very important to project my own vision of this person and not the obvious characteristics too literally. The clothes must have an independent life and tell their own tale. I also like to believe that I select and research women who might never have been considered as fashion icons. In the past I have discussed the possibilities of different muses and have learnt to keep my mouth shut! If they are well-known personalities people immediately start forming their own opinions which can really confuse the process and it is this personal interpretation that I feel gives the collection its character and strength, however wayward the choice of muse may be. In a sense she becomes a central theme in the collection and a reference point when explaining ideas to the team. The muse for the SS12 collection was Nina Simone so once she was chosen we began to research her life, relationships, character and of course her clothing. It’s also a great reference point for the print designer with whom I work very closely in creating the signature illustrations for each collection and building up a new kind of visual narrative .
You have ended up settling in London permanently. Could you ever see yourself working elsewhere?
I really love the British mentality, with its sense of freedom, eccentricity and humour. I could never see myself back in Denmark which I do find quite sad. There is very little freedom there if you have your own company where being confronted with countless rules and taxes I would find extremely limiting. With a 54% tax rate and compulsory trade union payments , the main pressure is to sell to survive often resulting in more commercial work and nothing very fashion forward or left of centre.
Having developed the company organically and with a small team, how have you adapted to the demands of today’s market which is so dictated by the immediacy of the internet and the constant need for renewal?
The pressure has certainly escalated in the last few years . There is also the sense of fashion being overly available, which makes it feel less special, but | can’t really imagine a world before the internet now. We have only gone digital relatively recently. Ten years ago, when we began, we didn’t have a computer, just a typewriter! There really is no way back from it now, we must take advantage of the possibilties it presents and adapt. The rapid change of seasons, however, is something I do look forward to, taking down images and old references from the studio wall and starting again with fresh ideas. It’s not always easy quickly pinning down a new inspiration, but this is something we welcome with so many challenging women to explore.